Impending recovery of Kirtland's warbler: Case study in the effectiveness of the endangered species act

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The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has received a large amount of criticism in recent years by conservative landowners and others who believe that it has infringed on property rights. It also has been criticized by those who think it has been costly and ineffective in reaching its goal of preventing extinction and recovering species. Recent evidence, however, shows that the ESA has stabilized or increased the populations of over a third of the listed species. In addition, its chief administrator, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has been increasingly flexible in implementing the ESA. After reviewing the administrative machinery of the ESA, this paper provides a case study of one endangered species, the Kirtland's warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii). This particular recovery program actually began before passage of the federal ESA, when biologists alerted the Michigan Department of Natural Resources of the perilously low population of this bird, which only breeds under jack pine (Pinus banksiana) trees in Michigan. By the time an ESA Recovery Team was formed for this bird in 1975 (the first such team created under the ESA), a legacy of consensus and interagency cooperation was well established. This has led to successful efforts at habitat management and control of its nest parasite, the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). While the Kirtland's warbler is not yet recovered, its population is near an all-time high, and its recovery is possible within the next decade. When (and if) this happens, it will be clearly attributable to this successful model of federalism for natural resources management.

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Environmental Management